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Join the Conversation and Stop the Rework

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In the spring of 1997, as I was starting the nonprofit Lean Enterprise Institute, I visited a company that I hoped would be a founding sponsor. I explained to the senior leadership that a Lean Enterprise was far more than a brilliant production organization, as had they assumed. It was also a brilliant product development organization including a brilliant production process design team.

This rang a bell with the leadership team and they suggested that I visit engineering to start a conversation about the connection between product development and production process design. (The engineering center was headquartered in a converted grain silo, which, as I soon discovered, was a wonderful metaphor.)

I was introduced to a senior engineer, a very engaging person, with the title of vice president, post-launch engineering. She explained that the company had never launched a new consumer product that customers did not immediately encounter problems with. So, a department had been created in engineering with some of their best engineers who were ready to dive in as soon as problems surfaced and quickly make the product what it should have been in the first place. High-speed engineering rework. Good grief.

That company, I’m happy to say, has gone on to rethink their product and process development process, with brilliant right-the-first-time results. But I’m afraid they are an outlier. Recently I was visiting a large industrial products company that was, in Jim Morgan’s phrase “trying to kaizen their way to heaven.” They were doing wave after wave of kaizen on the production line for one of their highest volume products. But they were struggling with the simplest things, like repeatable cycle times for each production step. (How do you do standardized work with wide variations in cycle time?)

A bit of observation suggested that one key problem was that the structural parts for the casing of the product didn’t fit. They had to be wrestled together with pry bars, rubber hammers, and shims, with highly erratic cycle times despite the experienced workforce. So, I asked how long they had been making the product, with its un-interchangeable parts, and the answer was 20 years. And I then asked, “Have you ever discussed this with product engineering.” The answer was that the product had been developed in a hurry, with little discussion between engineering and production, and that sales and engineering were always thinking that the product family would be replaced soon by something better. “So”, they said, “why waste time redesigning old parts?” Good grief.

This organization, like many I see, was trying to improve engineering through one set of kaizen activities and trying to improve production through another set of kaizen activities with no discussion between the groups about their shared problems or their root causes, and with little success for either group.

Some years ago, Jim Morgan and I were talking about this common situation and it became one of the reasons for creating the Lean Product and process Development (LPPD) initiative at LEI. We wanted to explain the full details of the lean (Toyota-inspired) product development system and to engage partner firms in trying real experiments with changing their development system for their next product. And we also wanted to start conversations between product engineering, process engineering, production, and the op-ex/continuous improvement (lean) teams that were often working with one group or another. (Obeya, involving all of the silos in face-to-face dialogue through the development process, is a great way to start.)

We’ve had some remarkable success with product development groups in the 12 LPPD partner firms, many of which will describe their experiments at the Designing the Future Summit, June 27-28, 2019, in Traverse City, MI. These are real firms with real chief engineers designing real products with a vastly better development process and vastly better results than ever before.

But we have not yet created the intense, long-term, four-way dialogue needed between product engineering, process engineering, production, and the lean teams. And I’m hoping we can make a start on this journey this year. We will have a presentation from the University of Michigan Medical System about how they develop an operational process for every new treatment from the outset. And Matt Zayko, long-time faculty member at LEI, will describe a process for developing a lean production process (that’s right, a lean process for creating lean processes) for every type of product from the outset.

You will also hear from Jim Morgan, who is in my view the most accomplished practitioner of lean product and process development today, and I will offer some thoughts on how we can design complex systems, involving many subsystems, with better results than we achieve today.

Please visit lean.org/designfuture2019 to see the agenda for the Summit, with more details on the presenters and presentations, and how to register.

I’ll look forward to seeing the full spectrum of the lean community in Traverse City – product developers, process developers, operators, and improvers – for an important dialogue. Let’s stop engineering and production process rework and get every product and production process right the first time.


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